The organized American Jewish community will soon “reassess” its policy of public restraint toward Iran if Tehran does not move toward freeing 13 Iranian Jews imprisoned on suspicion of espionage, a Jewish leader active on the issue said Monday.
“There must just be some point where we make a judgment [that] it’s time to reconsider,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Hoenlein, whose umbrella group has played a central role in American Jewry’s efforts to win release of the 13, said the community had alternatives if there was no movement soon.
“There are various legislative and economic options that are still available,” he said. “Everything would be open.”
Hoenlein’s warning came one week after comments by a senior Iranian judicial official had led many to believe a long-sought deal to obtain release of at least some of the 13 was imminent.
The official, Gholamhossein Rahbarpour, who heads Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, told a group of university students Nov. 23, “The Supreme National Security Council, which is in charge of thinking about the interests of the country, may decide soon to free some of the [Jews]” as a matter of national interest, according to wire service reports. Such an action, he said, would have “nothing to do with the court.”
The remark was seen as a sign that continued diplomatic pressure on Iran from Europe and even Muslim countries in Central Asia was having an effect. But a subsequent lack of any follow-up has tempered these hopes.
Hoenlein declined to specify a deadline for any action, but he stressed that the groups he represents would not accept the analysis of those who say nothing can be done until February, when a crucial parliamentary election in Iran is scheduled.
“We just can’t accept February as some kind of holy date,” he said.
Iranian officials had provided assurances the issue would be resolved in indirect exchanges with Jewish leaders, he said. And under those assurances, “People should have been out of prison a long time ago.”
Any shift toward public action would mark a sharp break with the community’s current posture. The 13 jailed Jews, who include a 16-year-old boy, rabbis and local religious leaders from the southern towns of Shiraz and Isfahan, have been in prison since March, and could face execution if convicted.
News of their jailing on spy charges did not become public until June. Jewish groups responded with a flurry of protests, press conferences and public meetings. Israel and the United States, the two governments for which the 13 Jews were said to have spied, both denied contacts with any of them.
After about two weeks, the communal strategy shifted to quiet diplomacy and support for diplomatic actions by numerous governments.
Jewish leaders explained that this was meant to provide room to maneuver for President Mohammad Khatami, a relative moderate in Iran’s deeply divided political structure, in his struggle with Muslim fundamentalist hard-liners. Those hard-liners were seen as exploiting the 13 jailed Jews as an issue to whip up public sentiment on their behalf. Public, and especially Jewish, international pressure was seen as playing into their hands.
But last week, a special court controlled by Iran’s hard-line faction sentenced one of Khatami’s most popular moderate allies to five years in prison. The Khatami supporter, Abdullah Nouri, an Islamic cleric, was convicted of apostasy and treason.
“The fact that they could get away with imprisoning Nouri is a sign that the hard-liners are in control,” said Hoenlein.
But Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, counseled patience.
“What happened last week is the next step in the process,” he said, referring to Rahbarpour’s comments. “But I don’t think it necessarily meant it would be immediately followed by something tangible. I consider last week to be a positive development.”
Hoenlein said the situation of the 13 Jews was unaffected by the recent death of an Iranian Jew in police custody and the murder of another. The victim’s family in the latter case claims the killing is not being investigated by police.